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Is that you, NRBQ?

Terry Adams throws himself back into the band that some consider rock 'n' roll's best. But without Joey Spampinato by his side, some fans wonder if this is still the real 'Q.'

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By Mark Shanahan
Globe Staff / June 5, 2011

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HAYDENVILLE — Terry Adams is alone in a tiny recording studio on the fourth floor of a former brass mill. Hunched over a grand piano whose corners are patched with gaffer tape, Adams suddenly lurches backward.

“My mission is to make people happy,’’ he says, hitting a random key with his knuckle. “It’s what I do.’’

That’s no secret to fans of NRBQ, the eclectic combo Adams formed four decades ago. Playing a peculiar blend of rock, blues, jazz, and just about any other groove that felt good, the band built an obsessive cult following. Their raucous live shows were legendary, leading A-list admirers like Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, and Bonnie Raitt to tout NRBQ as a band without peer.

“The Q is the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world,’’ says Raitt, who saw the group for the first time at Boston University while a student at Radcliffe College in 1969. “I’m just a gushing fool when it comes to those guys.’’

But since 2004, NRBQ has been MIA. Without explanation, they stopped touring and recording, and there were whispers that the Pioneer Valley-based band, whose classics include “Ridin’ in My Car,’’ “Howard Johnson’s Got His Ho- Jo Working,’’ and “Me and the Boys,’’ might be done. The good news is they’re not. Next month, the group will release “Keep This Love Goin’,’’ a new record that sounds like vintage NRBQ. (The CD is available now on the band’s website.) The bad news is that Adams is carrying on without his former bandmates, notably Joey Spampinato, the founding bassist who has been the Lennon to Adams’s McCartney for 40 years. The split distresses longtime fans who wonder how a group famous for its buoyant melodies and sense of fun got so broken.

“I would have no problem if Terry called the band NRB2 or something that acknowledges the past but makes it clear this is a new version,’’ says Mike Scully, a writer and executive producer of “The Simpsons’’ who grew up in West Springfield. “As a fan, it makes me terribly sad to think I might not see those guys together again.’’

Adams, 62, announced the new lineup on the band’s website in March. In the same online message, he stunned NRBQ fans by revealing for the first time why the band quit playing in 2004: He’d been diagnosed with throat cancer. Adams had told virtually no one about the illness — his parents didn’t even know — and swore Spampinato and the rest of the band to secrecy.

“I didn’t want to change my relationship with the audience,’’ he says, resting his elbows on the piano during a two-hour interview at the studio near his home in Florence. “I could have pulled it off. The only trouble is, when I tried to come back, there was no band.’’

NRBQ — short for New Rhythm and Blues Quartet — formed in Miami in 1967 with Adams on piano, Spampinato on bass, the late Steve Ferguson on guitar, singer Frank Gadler, and drummer Tom Staley. The group released its self-titled debut album two years later, and quickly distinguished itself as an act with an extraordinary musical vocabulary, capable of playing everything from Carl Perkins to Sun Ra.

“They had astounding musicianship and, live, they had a kind of amorphic quality that made each time you saw them like the first time,’’ says J. Geils singer Peter Wolf.

In the early 1970s, drummer Tommy Ardolino and guitarist Al Anderson joined Adams and Spampinato, creating the band that would tour and record relentlessly over the next 20 years, several times seeming on the cusp of commercial success. The group was signed — and dropped — by a half-dozen record labels, coming closest to a hit with 1974’s “Get That Gasoline Blues,’’ which reached No. 70 on the Billboard singles chart. Still, night after night, NRBQ played to delirious audiences.

Their shows were like rock ’n’ roll pajama parties: ecstatic and unpredictable. No two nights were the same. The band, which was briefly managed by professional wrestler “Captain Lou’’ Albano, was liable to play anything. (Their version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’’ was, literally, a show-stopper.) While everyone in NRBQ took turns singing and soloing, Adams was the first among equals. The self-described “activities director’’ of the band, he was its most prolific writer and called all the sets. Onstage, the silken-voiced Spampinato was subdued, while Adams resembled a mop-topped muppet, playing the piano (or clavinet) with his fists, elbows, or even feet. He was part Thelonious Monk, part Chico Marx.

“The piano for me is 88 drums,’’ says Adams. “I’m in the rhythm section. I put my whole self into the music. Always have.’’

They weren’t selling many records, but NRBQ had friends in high places who championed the band. The Rolling Stones’s Keith Richards enlisted Spampinato to play on his solo album and in the all-star ensemble he formed to pay tribute to Chuck Berry. Anderson, known to fans as “Big Al,’’ has written songs for a slew of country stars — Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and Tim McGraw, among others — while Adams, a favorite of everyone from Paul Westerberg to Penn & Teller, collaborated with Carla Bley, Sun Ra’s Marshall Allen, and worked on the soundtrack to the Robert Altman film “Short Cuts.’’

As executive producer of “The Simpsons,’’ Scully was in a unique position to promote NRBQ, and he did whenever possible, using several of their songs and even their image in the popular animated TV series. (In one episode, a cartoon likeness of the band performs in a biker bar.) His love for NRBQ also led Scully to produce an hourlong documentary about the band that featured testimonials from many of its famous fans.

“These guys didn’t chase musical trends. They stayed true to themselves and to what they enjoyed musically,’’ says Scully, who estimates he’s seen the band play hundreds of time. “It’s easy to have integrity when you have $10 million in the bank. But when you’re going from gig to gig, lugging a grand piano around, it’s a lot more admirable.’’

Tired of the road and wanting to earn more money, Anderson eventually left in 1994 to write songs full time in Nashville. He was replaced on guitar by Johnny Spampinato, Joey’s brother and a member of the Cape Cod-based surf rock combo the Incredible Casuals. NRBQ continued to record and tour, and celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2004 with concerts in Northampton that featured everybody who ever played in the group. Fans from across the country flocked to Western Massachusetts for the shows, which sold out instantly.

“It broke my heart when Al left. I was like somebody whose parents got divorced,’’ says Fred Janssen, a so-called Q-head who has the California license plates NRBQ and NRBQ FAN. “When I flew to Northampton for those reunion shows and watched Al perform, it was like watching my parents dance together again.’’

But the same year, while NRBQ was on tour in Japan, Adams had difficulty clearing his throat. When he returned home, he went to see a doctor and got the grim news: stage 4 throat cancer. Adams says his initial reaction was despair, and then concern for the band.

“We’re four guys that depend on each other,’’ he says. “Could I get treatment and still come out to play on the weekends?’’

He couldn’t. After exploring holistic remedies, Adams handed himself over to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He rented an apartment in Boston and put the cover of the album “Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger’’ on the wall for inspiration. He was treated with chemotherapy and radiation, and had a feeding tube in his stomach for nine months. Remarkably, Adams never lost his tumbleweed of straw-colored hair.

“I guess I fought for it in high school so the creator decided to leave it,’’ he says.

He kept the illness quiet, and within a year was well enough to resume playing. But, he says, Joey and Johnny Spampinato were not interested. With Ardolino on drums, the brothers had begun performing as Baby Macaroni. More recently, they have recorded as the Spampinato Brothers, without Ardolino. Adams bided his time, recording three solo CDs and touring with the Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet.

“Finally, I called Joey and said, ‘Don’t you miss playing?’ And he said to me, ‘I’m so far from the NRBQ thing, I don’t think I could ever do it again.’ That’s the last time we talked,’’ says Adams. “At that point, it’s no longer my place to ask. There was no further conclusion I needed to make. There was no interest in NRBQ.’’

Without alerting Spampinato, Adams announced the split in the letter to fans posted on the band’s website in March. He wrote about his battle with cancer, and his attempts to put the group back together. “Joey told me that he and Johnny really didn’t want to continue on with me or NRBQ,’’ Adams wrote. “I love NRBQ. I didn’t break up the band. I didn’t quit NRBQ. I didn’t fire anyone from NRBQ. . . . I would never end it — it’s my life’s work.’’ He also took the legal steps necessary to trademark the name NRBQ.

Spampinato declined repeated interview requests for this story, but approached after a recent Spampinato Brothers show at the Rosebud Bar in Somerville, he acknowledged he felt blindsided by Adams’s announcement. He later e-mailed a statement.

“I don’t agree with Terry’s assessment of the demise of our band. Bottom line, the reasons behind NRBQ not continuing had everything to do with personalities, from all sides, period. I don’t think the details, which are extremely complicated, are a thing for public discussion or debate,’’ he wrote. “We had our differences, but the one thing we could always agree on was that when we were playing, we touched on something extra special, something that was bigger than all of us combined. So yes, it did hurt me to hear that Terry had legally claimed, and was going to use the name NRBQ for his current band. I think a conversation with me about it first might have been in order, given all the years together. I thought it was ours.

“Fans and friends shouldn’t have to feel like they have to take sides,’’ wrote Spampinato. “That’s not what NRBQ was ever about. That’s not what I want. I don’t think that’s what Terry really wants either.’’

The new CD, recorded at the Brassworks building in Haydenville, has many of the elements of the best NRBQ albums — rhythms that swing, a thumping backbeat, sneaky guitar, sweet vocals, and Adams’s jazzy, chiming piano — but the names in the liner notes will be unfamiliar to fans: Scott Ligon on guitar, Pete Donnelly on bass, and Conrad Choucroun on drums. By choice, Ardolino isn’t in the band — “I can’t do the four-hour ride to the club outside Cleveland anymore’’ — but he plays on two songs on the new CD, and supports Adams’s decision to carry on as NRBQ.

“Terry’s keeping the legacy — and the catalog — alive,’’ says Ardolino, who lives in Springfield. “If he doesn’t, eventually people will forget.’’

Fans are conflicted. Even if the new record is excellent, they say, Terry without Joey is like Jagger without Richards.

“If Paul McCartney toured with the cast of ‘Beatlemania’ and called it the Beatles, people would be pissed,’’ says Janssen, the California Q-head. “At the same time, NRBQ has always been Terry’s vision. The wacky stuff, the rockabilly, the jazz, Captain Lou, that’s all Terry.’’

“I just don’t want NRBQ to wind up like the Beach Boys — with John Stamos on drums,’’ says “The Simpsons’’ producer Scully. “That’s when we’ll know it’s really over.’’

There’s no danger of that happening as long as Adams is in the band, according to Raitt, who says some of the greatest nights of her life were spent at NRBQ shows. (She got sober 24 years ago, and chose the day after an NRBQ concert to stop drinking.) Raitt wishes Spampinato, Ardolino, and Anderson were still playing together, but she says band dynamics get thorny after four decades.

“I love Joey. It’s sad, but people break up,’’ she says. “Terry knows exactly what he’s doing. Here he is in his 60s and he has the same passion for the music that did when he was 18.’’

For his part, Adams says he’s merely doing what he’s always done. NRBQ, he says, now stands for “No Required Band Quotient.’’

“This is all I know and all I’ve ever done. I made some promises to the cosmos about what I was going to do when I got healthy,’’ says Adams, seated at the piano he’s been banging on for decades. “I never intended this to be a controversial move. It’s not my fault Joey isn’t with me. If he finds value in it, he should come and join my band.’’

Mark Shanahan can be reached at shanahan@globe.com.

From the new album, "Keep This Love Goin'."
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